Roma!

Trevi Fountain

Trevi Fountain

I spent Sunday morning sleeping in a bit and then packing my stuff up for the trip to Rome.  I realized that this was the first and only Sunday I wouldn’t be able to make it to church, and I thought about how much I missed my small church back in Connecticut.  Well, I would be there soon enough.

Michelle, the lady who ran the hostel along with Chris, was heading back to Australia the next day so she, Chris, and Ross were taking the train to Rome as well.  I decided to tag along with them and save myself the leg work of figuring out bus and train schedules.  First we caught the bus into Amalfi where we waited about an hour for the next bus to Salerno.  In Salerno we got conflicting reports as I went to one ticket window and the rest went to another.  Because I have a Eurail pass, the man at the ticket window told me I didn’t need a ticket and that I should just get on the 3:42 train.  The others were told that the train was completely sold, and they had to purchase expensive tickets on a crowded commuter train to Naples and then on to Rome from there.  Well, my train was an hour late and also completely packed.  People were standing in aisles and the vestibules between train cars.  Needless to say, it wasn’t the most pleasant of train trips.  I spent the first hour or two sitting on the floor of a crowded aisle, but was finally able to interlope in a seat for the last part of the journey.
I arrived at Rome’s bustling Stazione Termini and walked the 3 blocks to Hotel Alessandro Palroma, my final home before I finally get to sleep in my own bed again.  This hostel came as a recommendation from Ross, who used to work here before he moved to Amalfi.  Indeed at 30 Euros a night, it was a good bit cheaper than most other options I had been finding.  The place was pretty nice too and offered free pizza every night—perfect for someone like me who had reached both the end of his travels and his budget!  I was pretty pleased until I found out that my room was on the very top floor, and there was no elevator.  What is with Italy and climbing stairs?!  My one satisfaction as I hauled my backpack up 9 flights of stairs was that the next time I had to haul all this weight on my shoulders, I’d be going DOWN the stairs.

Today was my one full day in Rome, and I knew I wanted to see some of what makes Rome so famous.  Namely, the ruins.  From my hostel, it was about a 16 “block” walk to the Colosseum and Palatine Hill.  I started at Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum, renting an audio guide and self-guided tour map of the area.  So let me just say that I now have a better understanding of why the Italians are known for food, love, and fast cars, but not at all for organizational propensities.  According to the map that came with my audio guide, there is a logical route to take through these vast gardens and ruins, with numbered “listening points” along the way.  Fine, this is nothing I haven’t seen before, and generally it makes perfect sense.  However, this particular map seemed to only vaguely correspond with actual geography, and the numbers for the listening points existed only on the map.  The recorded audio gave very little additional help either.  It would often play something like, “now, go up the stairs and through the Domus Tiberiana until you reach the sacred area of Palatine Hill.”  Uh, OK, but there are four flights of steps in front of me going in different directions, and the only signs I ever found in the entire sprawling complex all pointed to the house of Augustus.  More than once, I listened to an entire recording, regarding my surroundings with nods of recognition, only to realize later that I was completely in the wrong spot.

Then there were certain things that sounded intriguing but were almost impossible to find.  The map seemed rather random in what it decided to label, showing acres of gardens and structures but leaving them completely unidentified.  I had been navigating around dozens of byzantine European cities now for 5 weeks, so I found the confusion of this place to be a fresh, new challenge to my orientation skills.  Finding Nero’s tunnel became my obsession.  Nero’s tunnel, or the Neronian Cryptoportico, is a 400-foot tunnel built to connect Nero’s Domus Aurea with the imperial palaces.  According to my map, it was exactly on my way from points 22 to 23, yet no matter what approach I tried, I always ended up on a huge, hot, dusty plateau littered with ruins, but with absolutely no identification on my map.  I did find one sign but it only pointed to the house of Augustus.  For the better part of an hour, I studied maps, listened for tell-tale clues in various audio commentaries, and shadowed promising-looking people until I at last found the tunnel.  Ah, the satisfaction of triumph, but let’s just say it was one of those cases where it was definitely more about the journey than it was about the destination!

For all the confusion and frustration that accompanied my tour of Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum, I have to say I rather enjoyed the area.  I hadn’t even come close to anticipating how extensive the ruins stretched.  Perhaps this is why so much of it isn’t identified—there’s simply too much stuff everywhere, and quite frankly, there’s probably a lot of it that nobody has a clue about.  I eventually gave up on my audio guide and eavesdropped on an English-speaking guide giving a private tour to a wealthy couple.  I casually and indirectly trailed them for a while, finally learning a few facts that actually corresponded to my surroundings.  One of the things that stuck in my mind was learning that most of the Roman Forum had been abandoned and eventually was buried under about 30 feet of silt from period floods.  The whole area had become a cow pasture, albeit a surrealistic one with a few Corinthian columns sticking out of the grass.  It has now been excavated down to the original Roman roads, and what a world of history is now unearthed!

After finally leaving the forum, I walked back up Via San Gregorio to the Coliseum.  Up to this point, I had figured I needed to see this site mostly so I could check it off the list of obligatory “things you must see when in xxxx.”  To me though, there is always something a bit awesome about standing outside a stadium, whether it’s Fenway Park or Gillette Stadium.  Spaces are scaled to contexts much larger than we are used to, and the effect is perhaps a miniature version of what it feels like to stand above the Grand Canyon.  Well, there’s something even more special about standing outside a similar structure that carries the patina of nearly 2,000 years with it.  I was truly taken aback by how impressed I was with this place.  The structure itself is simultaneously beautiful and imposing, but of far greater impact is the weight of history that exudes from the stones.  At one end, a cross stands as a memorial to the Christians who were martyred in the cruelty of the Roman games.  Again, I was surprised by how touched I felt by the history that echoed from the walls.  I found myself gazing up at the arched walls and azure skies wondering how many brothers and sisters in Christ I’ll meet someday who looked upon this same scene in their final moments.  I learned that there is actually no conclusive evidence that Christians were martyred in the Colosseum, though it is altogether likely.  Evidence does exist, however, of Christians being martyred in the Circus Maximus.  Located just the other side of Palatine Hill, Circus Maximus once dwarfed the Colosseum in size.  It held 200,000 people compared to the Colosseum’s 50,000.  The Colosseum is more famous today because it is still in relatively good condition compared to Circus Maximus, which is now just a massive, grassy area in the vague shape of a long oval.

After leaving the Colosseum, I walked up to Piazza Venezia where an imposing, white building towers over its surroundings.  I’m assumed this is was major seat of the government, a suspicion reinforced when I scaled its massive steps and found the guarded ignoto militi, their tomb of the unknown soldier.  From here I continued several more jumbled blocks to the Pantheon.  Not only is this ancient Rome’s most well-preserved building, it also features the largest masonry vault ever built.  The building is quite impressive, but there was something a bit unsettling about staring up at a huge, coffered, semi-sphere ceiling that was built 2,000 years ago and is all held together by gravity.

At this point I had to decide whether or not I would continue another 15 or so blocks to where I could cross the Tiber River and enter Vatican City.  It was already getting a bit late in the afternoon, and I felt I had already seen plenty of examples of Catholic decadence, so I decided to head back towards my hostel via a stop at the Trevi Fountain.  The Trevi is no more a must-see in Rome than Columbus Circle would be in New York.  Still, the fountain is quite impressive, and I caught it sparkling brilliantly in the late afternoon sunlight.  Clearly a tourist attraction, the steps leading down to it were packed with gawkers.  A steady stream of Asians took turns photographing each other as they tossed coins over their shoulders into the fountain, living the superstitious dream that a coin tossed into the Trevi ensures your return to Rome someday.  Personally, I’d rather keep my coins to help pay for my trip, should I ever return.

There was still plenty of light left in the day, but I felt rather tired and couldn’t get motivated to push myself to see more of the city.  I guess I must be ready to go home!

And so the next day I did.

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